This is a riveting 80-something minutes of bravura filmmaking best seen on a big screen in a good-sized cinema (go here to find current bookings across the UK – often single screenings). It’s set in rural Iceland with sea, mountains and rough pasture and accompanied by a terrific soundtrack (including Icelandic choir performances). Described as ‘Comedy-Drama’ by the distributor, the humour is actually very dark. When I was going into the cinema I overheard an argument at the box office when someone couldn’t understand why the cinema would not admit her child (aged under 15). I suspect that the film would be very upsetting for most children – this isn’t a ‘horsey romance’.
There is no strong narrative as such. Instead we get a number of shorter narratives, mostly tragic with elements of comedy, involving the small farmers on the plain. The farmers all in some way live with/by the wild horses of the region, each year rounding up a number of them and breaking them for leisure or commerce of some kind. There is something of a documentary feel to the narrative structure in the way that the stories lead towards the big summer round-up. The community is quite ‘close’ in proximity but individuals are also competitive/jealous/promiscuous etc. The film’s English title (not a direct translation) misses out ‘women’, at least two of whom are also important narrative agents.
I was trying to think of another film that had a similar tone and I began to think of the Basque film Vacas (Cows) made by Julio Medem in 1992. A tight-knit community in a very specific locale with a strong local culture and some almost surreal local practices. At one point, when the various widows/divorcées are angered that one of their number has got her teeth into the most eligible male by teaming up with him during the horse round-up, the other women suggest that there should be more than two people doing the job taken by the couple. “It’s been a two-person job for a thousand years” retorts an older man.
Of Horses and Men is a début film for writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson and as such it is a staggering achievement, winning several international prizes as well as cleaning up at the Icelandic ‘Edda’ awards. One of the roles is played by the Icelandic actor who is best known by international audiences, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, and I recognised at least one other actor from Jar City (2006), the last Icelandic film to get a significant release in the UK. Most of the stories have surprising twists which I don’t want to give away but I was intrigued by the reference to a famous sequence from Jan Troell’s The New Land (Sweden 1972) (what to do when you and your horse/ox etc. are caught in a snowstorm). The relatively few Icelandic films I’ve seen have all had ‘noirish’ features. The short film Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) shares the dark tone and appears to have been shot in a similar location.
I enjoyed the film very much, but I turned away from the screen a couple of times since I’m squeamish about many forms of violence or medical procedure. Will the film please horse-lovers? I don’t know, but I think they will appreciate the representation of the horses (beautifully photographed) and the realism of certain scenes. Be warned, however, that the film ends with the message that all those taking part in the film are horse lovers and that “no horses were harmed during the making of the film”. Some pretty good CGI or VFX then, I think!
This is, very simply, one of the best and probably the funniest, films of the year. I laughed in recognition all the way through the film, even though I have very little experience of how 13 year-old girls behave. I was worried by that fact going in to the cinema but, of course, the experiences are universal. The three girls who shout out the title are three non-conformists in Stockholm in 1982 who tell us with force that “you may think that punk is dead – but we are here to tell you it’s alive!”. They do and it is.
Lukas Moodysson was seen as the great hope of Swedish cinema in the late 1990s when he released his first feature Fucking Åmål in 1998. That story involved two young girls bored by the limited opportunities in their local town of Åmål in Western Sweden. In the UK and US the title was changed to the mundane Show Me Love. I guess I should warn you that if you are offended by ‘bad language’ there is plenty in We Are the Best!, but the overall feel is warm and life-fulfilling. It does mean however that the film has a 15 certificate in the UK, ironically excluding its young actors from watching themselves on a cinema screen. Moodysson’s second feature was the even more successful Tilsammans (Together) in 2004. This featured a hippy commune of sorts in the mid 1970s in a gentle satire. After that Moodysson’s gaze turned to some very dark subjects which garnered critical attention but relatively small audiences.
The return to form for the popular audience comes via an adaptation of his partner’s graphic novel. Coco Moodysson’s story (drawing on her own teenage adventures) sees two teenage girls demanding to use the facilities of their local youth club to make music, even though they have no musical knowledge as such. They simply want to have the same access to facilities as the boys. Realising that they really need some input by someone who knows something and can play an instrument they approach a girl who is a year older but is generally ostracised in the school because she is a devout Christian. This is Hedwig, an intelligent girl who doesn’t like being left out and is open to persuasion. There is very little ‘plot’ in what is quite a long film (102 mins) for this kind of subject. Little plot but tons of observation and insight. Any audience will see themselves in this film – remembering how it felt, how families and friends reacted and what pleased them most at 13. The parents are skilfully represented and not lampooned. Instead they are gently satirised but also allowed to be human. The three girls were selected after a long casting exercise in which Moodysson had to make choices based on the three who worked together best. He chose well. In the press notes he puts a special emphasis on the costumes they wear and their overall look which, including the hair, is wonderful. The detail I like is that Klara wears a Palestinian keffiyeh which contradicts the fashion code but perfectly fits the mixture of rebellion, cool and joyful rejection of authority. Lukas and Coco appear to work well together and I’m not sure how much of each partner appears in the film. The graphic novel connection is interesting and I was sometimes reminded of Persepolis in terms of the ‘tone’ of the film. (Lukas Moodysson talks about ‘tone’ quite a lot in the notes – “I wanted to replicate the tone of the book . . . I’m not really so thorough with the storyline, I’m more interested in the tone, the mood, the details.”) I wonder if some enterprising publisher will bring out Coco Moodysson’s 2008 novel Aldrig godnatt (Never goodnight) in the UK/US? (Read an interview with Coco Moodysson at Female First.)
The music in the film is well chosen and fits the narrative. I know how important music has been to Swedish teens from the various books and films I’ve come across but I didn’t know anything about the punk scene. The press notes assure us that the music in the film is genuine, apart from, presumably, the great lyrics that the girls write – there one song is ‘Anti-Sport’ directed at their fascist PE teacher. (There is one social type which never seems to disappear, but occasionally the PE teacher can be sympathetic, as in Let the Right One In.) The look of the film is, I think, carefully managed to resemble a 1980s Swedish film. I did wonder if it was shot on film.
We Are the Best! deserves to be loved by audiences everywhere. It’s the perfect night out. Here’s the trailer:
Bradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.
I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.
Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.
I’m not sure why I wanted to see this film. I’d previously seen only one Lars von Trier film (Dancer in the Dark, 2000), not wanting to see the others after reading about them. However, Nymphomaniac seems to have had some decent reviews and I thought I needed to see something else of the work of the provocateur extraordinaire since he clearly attracts audiences.
The ‘plot’ of Nymphomaniac explores the sexual life of Jo from her early teenage years to her late 40s. The narrative structure uses a long flashback so the film begins with the older Jo lying bruised and battered in an alleyway in a nondescript urban setting, where she is found by Seligman, an older man who has a small apartment close by. He takes her in and she begins to tell her story – how she became a nymphomaniac.
There is a strange lack of identity in the film. This European co-production is presented in English (the Press Pack is in American English – the character is written as ‘Joe’ which I would usually think of as a male name). This in itself is not unusual for an ‘international film’ but, though filmed mainly in Germany, various aspects of the dialogue suggest that this is supposed to be the UK. It’s not clear to me if von Trier is trying to present a kind of ‘everywhere’. It would make sense to do so as otherwise we might attempt to read something from the UK context. Perhaps the film is a Danish joke about British attitudes to sex?
It’s a big ask for a young actor to be on screen for so much of the film in her debut role, but Stacey Martin does very well as the young Jo. Many reviews have picked up on the brief but powerful cameo by Uma Thurman as an angry wife and mother. The rest of the cast are also good but I don’t think that the script helps them – or the flat lighting and drab mise en scène. I wasn’t really provoked or excited by what was shown except by the scenes of Jo with her father on his hospital bed which did seem to have some emotional content. The numerous explicit sex scenes are not erotic. OK perhaps there was the occasional flicker of eroticism, but I think it is safe to assume that von Trier’s intention is not necessarily to arouse. Much of it is tedious and especially the repeated dialogue exchanges in which Jo (in her older self played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) that she is a “bad human being” and he assures her that no such thing exists. I think we get the point Lars.
I think I’ll have to see Part 2 in order to say anything sensible about how I read the film. It’s slightly worrying that it might include more of the moralising banalities from Seligman – and the chunks of erudition about fly fishing and other pursuits. On the other hand we will get more of the mature Jo played by Gainsbourg. Does Von Trier have something profound to tell us about nymphomania/sex addiction and/or the human spirit? Watch this space.
Dogme #1, directed by Thomas Vinterberg and released in Denmark in 1998 was one of the European Catalyst films screened at the Leeds International Film Festival. These films have “game changing features running through the history of world cinema that were the first in influential movements.” There can be few examples where the opening salvo of a movement has arrived with so much aplomb and panache as Festen (The Celebration).
Three siblings, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), Hélene (Paprika Steen) and Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) arrive at an affluent hotel for the celebrations of their wealthy father’s sixtieth birthday. The dinner and party are also attended by a large number of members of the extended family, friends and colleagues. And there is also a ghost at the banquet: Christian’s dead twin sister Linda, who committed suicide. Revelations from the past during the weekend reveal this as a completely dysfunctional family, with not only vicious verbal infighting but outright violence.
The film was made following the ‘Ten Commandments’ of the Dogme Manifesto. So we have all the trademarks of this film group: hand-held camera, natural lighting and sound, no special effects and the then rare Academy film ratio. The film was shot of video, [though Vinterberg would have preferred 35mm] and this gives it a raw and tawdry look. What is most noticeable about the film is another Dogme trademark, the intensity of characterisation and action. Henning Moritzen, who plays the father, was quoted from a press conference in Sight & Sound (February 1999) “The main departure was that the camera followed him rather than him having to follow the camera. He didn’t have to worry about hitting marks and was therefore able to give a performance much closer to what he would have attempted had he been playing the corrupt old patriarch on stage.”
The film inverts one of the recent stereotypes of popular cinema and television, the dysfunctional proletarian family. Here it is the bourgeois family that is dysfunctional. Vinterberg is quoted in the Festival Catalogue: “You know fascism is very much about the anxiety of the ‘foreign’. And I guess this whole story is about that. The anxiety of something else other than what you’re used to. Something breaking the rituals, something disturbing the rituals.” He makes the point that Hélene brings with her an African-American boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah). Just about all of the guests at this party join in the singing of a racist song. And Michael, who is dominated by oedipal feelings, attacks several people including his own wife and workers at the hotel. At times the appalling older members of the family reminded me of those in Visconti’s great film The Damned (Götterdämmerung 1969).
Roy, in his review of the film, suggested that it is melodrama – which is true. He also suggests that it is a genre film – which I think not. This would breach the Dogme Vow ‘Genre movies are not acceptable.’ I think that melodrama is a mode of drama, rather like tragedy. A genre would be the family melodrama. Of course, you could place this film in that genre: the Sight & Sound article also suggested the country house drama. And we do have conventional plot mechanisms such as the revelation from the past, and the letter from the past. But the film completely subverts these as indeed it subverts the conventions of most of the contemporary cinema.
Vinterberg, along with Dogme comrade Lars von Trier, threw a bombshell into the world of film in 1998, rather along the lines of the bombshell that Christian lobs into the expensive gourmet meal at the weekend. I was as impressed at this screening as I was when the film first appeared. This is great cinema – funny, sardonic, even tragic and certainly moving. And we watched it on a good 35mm print, the format in which it was originally released.
I missed this on release – I don’t think that Arrow made too much of an effort in 2012 when a DVD release was their prime objective and that’s a shame because this is a CinemaScope flick which would look very good on a big screen. I’m just grateful to BBC4 for showing it in its Saturday night slot usually reserved for noir crime fiction. It still looked good on a small screen. The English title is a typical marketing scam, depending on on Anglo viewers’ memories of Papillon and other films set on the notorious colonial prison in French Guiana. It’s not a very helpful title as this is about a brutal boys’ reformatory school on Bostoy island in the Oslo fjord in 1915. Based on a historical incident this was the second of the recent cycle of homegrown ‘blockbusters’ in Norway, following Max Manus and preceding Kon-Tiki. A blockbuster like this in Norway has a budget of around 50 million kroner (about £5.7 million) and attracts an audience of around 200,000.
Nordic films often need to be co-productions to raise the finance for a large scale production and this film has several co-production partners. It was mostly filmed in Estonia and its Swedish star, Stellan Skarsgård, never actually set foot in Norway on the shoot. VFX were also used to create a sense of historical and geographical accuracy. Skarsgård is a genuine star presence but in this case I think he is upstaged by the largely non-professional cast of boys and the two leading young actors, Benjamin Helstad as Erling and Trond Nilssen as Olav.
The film succeeds partly through spectacle with the CinemaScope frame used very effectively by cinematographer John Andreas Andersen to portray the bleak conditions on the island, especially in the final scenes during the winter. The story is familiar with a new ‘inmate’, Erling, arriving and being assigned to a dormitory in which Olav is the ‘trusty’ leader – a boy who has been in the home for many years and is only a few months away from release. Olav’s original crime was trivial but Erling has done something pretty serious. He also comes with a backstory – he has been on a whaling boat and experienced the death throes of a whale. The narrative develops with a conventional triangular structure. Erling and Olav have to develop a relationship in difficult circumstances, with a potential conflict between them in terms of fighting the authoritarian regime of the Governor and the dormitory ‘house master’, Braaten. This is one of those films that endlessly reminds the viewer of other titles. I thought at first that it would be like Scum and then wondered if it was becoming like if . . . . Other commentators have referenced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke. I’m sure that Shawshank Redemption will be another touchstone for some. I think that it is more a ‘youth picture’ than a conventional ‘prison film’ and the narrative turns on the fate of another new boy who arrives with Erling, but who is less likely to survive. It’s also probably a mistake to look only at Anglo-American films for clues to category/genre.
Staying true to the historical incident, the film develops into a type of Nordic story that seemed recognisable to me from several key Swedish films with young and potentially romantic ‘rebel’ heroes hounded by repressive forces – I’m reminded of Bo Widerberg’s films such as The Ballad of Joe Hill. Erling and Olav are nor ‘political’ in any way, but they do represent heroic figures in the face of brutality and criminal behaviour by men in positions of authority, even if Skarsgård’s performance ‘humanises’ the Governor a little. The film won prizes in Norway and Sweden but bizarrely does not seem to have attracted audiences in either Sweden or Denmark, confirming the odd observation that Nordic films rarely travel to neighbouring countries. Audiences seem to go only for Hollywood or ‘national’ product. That’s a poor choice in this case. I don’t think Hollywood could make a film with the discipline shown by director Marius Holst here. I certainly recommend the film. The original institution on Bastoy is now a very progressive and seemingly successful prison where rehabilitation appears to be working.